Category Archives: Plants & Fungi

Seen This Week, May 14-20

Just banded: female red-winged blackbird in hand, Frick Park, 14 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

21 May 2022

Seen this week in Schenley and Frick Parks:

At top, bird bander David Yeany holds a recently banded female red-winged blackbird at Frick Park on Migratory Bird Day, 14 May 2022.

On 17 May we looked for warblers along Nine Mile Run’s boardwalk and found many black walnut flowers fallen on the railing.

Old flower from black walnut, 17 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

I would have brushed this one away until I saw an insect hiding on it. Do you see the juicy caterpillar, below? This is warbler food!

Warbler food! on an old black walnut flower, 17 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park a carpenter ant examined fading pawpaw flowers that smell like rotten meat, if they smell at all. No rotting meat here. She left.

An ant leaves after exploring fading flowers on a pawpaw tree, 13 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Mystery flower of the week was a non-native with thin basal leaves found blooming in the woods in Frick Park. How did star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum sp.), a native of southern Europe and southern Africa, get into the woods? Is it invading?

Star of Bethlehem blooming in the woods at Frick Park, 14 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Sterile ‘Living Fossil’ Thrives

Equisetum × ferrissii (photo by John Hilty of illinoiswildflowers.info)

18 May 2022

Many of us are familiar with horsetail (Equisetum) because it looks so unusual. Its hollow stems are ridged and jointed and grow in dense clumps as much as three feet tall. None of the stems have apparent leaves but some have a knob on top, a stobilus, that produces spores for reproduction.

Equisetum is so weird because, as Wikipedia explains, it “is a living fossil, the only living genus of the entire subclass Equisetidae, which for over 100 million years was much more diverse and dominated the under-story of late Paleozoic forests. Some equisetids were large trees reaching to 30 m (98 ft) tall.”

251.9 million years ago the Permian–Triassic extinction event wiped out all the Equisetidae except for Equisetum which is now 359 million years old, older than the dinosaurs.

At some point two Equisetum species — scouringrush horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) and smooth horsetail (Equisetum laevigatum) — hybridized to produce intermediate horsetail (Equisetum × ferrissii), a tricky plant to identify.

The hybrid grows stobilus knobs that make spores, but the spores are sterile. And yet the plant persists.

Spore-bearing knobs on intermediate horsetail (photo by John Hilty of illinoiswildflowers.info)

Equisetum species have two methods of reproduction: sexually via spores and asexually by spreading rhizomes in clonal colonies. The hybrid can only spread asexually but that’s enough to keep it thriving in limited locations.

Learn more about intermediate horsetail at Illinois Wildflowers.

(photos by John Hilty of illinoiswildflowers.info)

Pretty Invasive

Viburnum plicatum beginning to bloom, Frick Park, 3 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

9 May 2022

In early April in Frick Park I noticed many woody saplings leafing out ahead of all the other plants. They were everywhere sporting dark green pleated leaves while the rest of the woods were brown. They looked invasive. I took a picture.

One of many V. plicatum volunteers leafing out, Frick Park, 13 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

In early May the older ones started to bloom. Viburnum. But which one?

Viburnum plicatum beginning to bloom, Frick Park, 3 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Viburnums are hard to identify so I asked my friends from the Botanical Society of Western PA, Mark Bowers and Loree Speedy, who identified it as Japanese snowball (Vibrunum plicatum) and remembered it from a survey in Frick Park a few years ago.

When Frick Park was established in 1919 its grand entry was landscaped with beautiful plants from around the world, available from catalogs such as this one from 1910 showing Viburnum plicatum var Tomentosum.

V. Plicatum var. tomentosum in Mount Hope Nurseries catalog, 1910 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The plant looks good in the catalog and even better in person. For over 100 years it’s been thriving and spreading in the park.

It is now listed as invasive in Pennsylvania, certainly in Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties.

Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum) invasive map from invasiveplantatlas.org

Pretty, but invasive.

Read more about invasive vs. native viburnums in this article from Maryland Invasive Species Council: Choose Your Viburnums With Care.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Seen Last Week

An abundance of the plant formerly known as squaw root, Schenley Park, 5 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

8 May 2022

The first week of May was full of new flowers, leaves, birds and insects. Here are just a few of many sightings.

The ground in Schenley Park is dotted with abundant clusters of cream colored leafless flowers poking up like corn cobs beneath the oaks. Conopholis americana is a parasite on oak roots so we never see the plant itself, only the flowers. Fortunately it doesn’t harm the trees.

Formerly known as squaw root, Conopholis americana has many alternate common names. The accepted name now is “American cancer-root” but that sounds scary and can be misleading. I prefer “bear corn” because it looks like a corn cob and bears do eat it.

While the bear cone bloomed below them, the oaks flowered and leafed out above. This drew in migrating birds to eat the insects that hatch among the leaves.

Red oak flowers and new leaves, Schenley Park, 5 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

May’s tiny green caterpillars are too small for me to photograph but here’s what they look like in June, munching on an oak leaf. This is warbler food!

Caterpillar on oak leaf, June 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

At mid level in Schenley Park the pawpaws (Asimina triloba) opened their bell-like flowers.

Pawpaw in bloom, Schenley Park, 5 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

And Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) bloomed in Frick Park.

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Frick Park, 2 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Some new leaves are not benign. Poison ivy is leafing out. Beware! Learn how to ID it at Poison-ivy.org.

Poison ivy leafing out, Frick Park, 2 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Now Blooming

Redbud blooming in Frick Park, 28 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

30 April 2022

Thursday morning’s freezing temperature did not affect the redbud trees in Frick Park. I hope it didn’t harm the wildflowers we saw on Wednesday at Enlow Fork in Greene County.

Check the captions for what’s blooming now.

Wild blue phlox, Enlow Fork, 27 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Squirrel corn, Enlow Fork, 27 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Dwarf larkspur, Enlow Fork, 27 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Corn salad, Enlow Fork, 27 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Blue-eyed Mary, Enlow Fork, 27 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Now Blooming!

Trout lilies at Raccoon Creek State Park Wildflower Reserve, 22 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

23 April 2022

Woodland wildflowers are putting on a show right now in southwestern Pennsylvania. Here are just a few of the beauties we saw yesterday at Raccoon Creek State Park Wildflower Reserve.

Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), above, are at their peak. Look closely and you’ll find a few of the less common white trout lily (Erythronium albidum), below.

See the captions for the rest of the flowers.

White trout lily, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 22 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Early saxifrage, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 22 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Mud splattered! Large-flower trillium, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 22 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sessile trillium, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 22 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Smooth rock cress, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 22 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Wild geranium, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 22 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Blue violets, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 22 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

This weekend’s sunny hot weather will put these flowers past their prime soon. It’s time to get outdoors!

p.s. If you go to Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, wear boots! It is very, very muddy.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Blooming Right Now

Harbinger of spring, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 15 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

16 April 2022

Yesterday’s warm and sunny weather brought out woodland flowers that were waiting bloom. I found a good selection at Raccoon Creek State Park Wildflower Reserve in Beaver County, PA.

Four flowers were at their peak:

  • Harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), only 5-15 cm (2-6″) tall, is one of the first to bloom.
Spring beauty, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 15 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
  • Chickweed (Stellaria sp.) was a puzzle without my Newcomb’s Guide. Which one is this? To me the petals look too long for common chickweed, too short for great/star chickweed but the lower leaves have long stalks which says “common” to me.
Chickweed, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 15 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Trout lilies, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 15 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Other plants had one or two representatives while the rest waited to flower soon:

Cutleaf toothwort, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 15 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
  • Small-flowered crowfoot (Ranunculus micranthus), with leaves shaped like crows’ feet, is a member of the Buttercup family. Its small flower can be inconspicuous.
Small-flower crowfoot, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 15 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Dutchman’s breeches, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 15 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Virginia bluebells, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 15 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Unfortunately yesterday’s gusty winds presaged today’s rain and colder temperatures for the week ahead. (Snow in the sky on Tuesday?!) The flowers at Raccoon may be delayed again.

Meanwhile weeds will not be phased by the change in weather. Look at the sidewalk’s edge to find bird’s-eye speedwell (Veronica persica), a native of Eurasia. I found this one near the feeders at Frick Park. Bird’s eye indeed!

Bird’s eye speedwell, Frick Park, 13 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Scratch and Sniff

Scratching a spicebush branch with my thumbnail (photo by Kate St. John)

12 April 2022

We’re used to the idea that flowers smell sweet but did you know that some twigs and buds have scents too? Scratch and sniff to find these three.

Spicebush (Lindera sp.) stands out right now with yellow flowers in balls along the branches. Scratch and sniff the twig, as I am doing above. It smells like spice, almost nutmeg.

Spicebush at Schenley Park, 9 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Before this tree leafs out, scratch and sniff a bud on a bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis). It smells like lemons.

Bitternut hickory buds, Schenley Park, 9 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Juniper berries (Juniperus sp.) are a favorite food of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) on spring migration. Last week I found 40 of them feasting at the junipers near CMU’s Morewood Gardens parking lot.

Scratch or crush a berry. It smells like gin. … Or so they say. I haven’t smelled gin in years because I don’t like it.

Juniper berries from Devonshire Street at CMU (penny for scale), 8 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Try it and see.

(photos by Kate St. John)

April Showers Bring …

Purple dead nettle, Toms Run, 6 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 April 2022

This week’s showers brought …

  • Almost-blooming native trees including eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) in Frick Park.
Redbud flowers in bud, 7 April 2022 in Frick Park (photo by Kate St. John)
  • Swelling buds and leaf out on the yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava) in Schenley Park.
Yellow buckeyes in Schenley Park: buds and leaf out! (photos by Kate St. John)
  • and Mud Season!
Mud season! after a trek in Schenley Park, 9 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

This year’s cold weather delayed the trees compared to last year on this date. For comparison see Spring Green from 10 April 2021.

And finally: Why did it Rain, Sun, Rain, Sun over and over again yesterday? The National Weather Service radar shows a flock of discrete self-contained rain clouds moving over the landscape.

National Weather Service radar part of eastern US, 9 April 2022, 6:43pm

(photos by Kate St. John; radar map from NWS)

Early Warblers and Spring Ephemerals: What to Expect in April

Louisiana waterthrush (photo by Steve Gosser)

4 April 2022

Spring was on hold during last week’s long hard frost but it’s coming back this week. Here’s what to expect outdoors in the Pittsburgh area.

The earliest warblers arrive in April before the leaves open.  Last weekend a Louisiana waterthrush returned to Tom’s Run Nature Reserve in Sewickley PA. Look for them walking along clean streams, bobbing their tails, and singing their very loud song.

Purple martin scouts are back at Harrison Hills County Park and Murrysville Wetland Community Park and tree swallows have returned to Moraine State Park. Watch for northern rough-winged swallows, barn swallows, and the rest of the purple martins in the weeks ahead.

Tree swallow (photo by Jessica Botzan)
Tree swallow (photo by Jessica Botzan)

Yellow-throated warblers will return to Pittsburgh area creeks and streams on or before 20 April. You’ll hear them before you see them, walking the high trunks and larger branches of sycamores. 

Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthiny Bruno)
Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Watch for gray catbirds, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and ruby-crowned kinglets returning soon.

Meanwhile, don’t miss April’s ephemeral wildflowers.

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale) was out in full force yesterday at the Botanical Society of Western PA walk at Little Sewickley Creek in Westmoreland County.

Snow trillium, Little Sewickley Creek, Westmoreland County, 3 April 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Soon we’ll see spring beauty, spicebush, hepatica, harbinger-of-spring, bloodroot, spring cress, twinleaf, violets and more. 

Spicebush in bloom, Schenley Park 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spicebush in Schenley Park, 13 April 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more details check out my Pennsylvania Phenology page.

It’s a good month to be outdoors.

(photo credits: bird photos by Steve Gosser, Anthony Bruno and Jessica Botzan.  Plant photos by Kate St. John)